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A Fighting Chance
June 29, 1942-
I haven’t written in this thing since my tour started, but these might be my last words. I’m in Africa right now, with the British Eighth Army in a town called El Alamein. The Germans have us on the retreat and we’re making our final stand.
German spearheads have just reached us and the bigwigs are burning classified papers in anticipation of an evacuation to Palestine. Things may seem bleak, but we do have a fighting chance.
Later that day-
Sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Peter Lark. I’m from London, Great Britain, and I’m 20 years old. I’ve been in Africa with the Eighth for some time now, going and going across this bloody continent fighting those bloody Germans. We have experienced a string of defeats lately, so this is our final chance to try to turn the tide on the African front.
Don’t have much time to write. Rommel (the German commander) captured 2,000 of our guys, but lost 18 tanks. I’m being called to the front line now, and I’m scared.
We did it! We fended off the Germans! After I was called up, I grabbed my Lee-Enfield rifle and headed up with my tent mate Edward to the front line. We rushed up to the first row of sandbags and grabbed some extra clips and ammo. Crouching behind the sandbags, we started moving up closer to the front line. After passing the third row, we spotted some men there firing at the Germans, so we joined them.
There was a pack of four Germans huddling beside a Panzer tank, using it as cover. I planned to pick them all off, then call in an anti-tank gun to fire at the Panzer.
I drew the rifle to my shoulder and fired at a short German who was turned back yelling at his comrades to advance.
One German dropped.
In aimed down the barrel again, blasting another German, this one manning a shotgun, with a shot of lead.
Another German dropped.
Just as the other two Germans bent down to help their fallen comrades, a screeching roar erupted as the Panzer they were hiding behind exploded, hit by an anti-tank gun.
Two more Germans, disintegrated.
The five guys I was with hopped over another two rows of sandbags, getting ever closer to the enemy. I ducked behind the sandbags as I saw a burly German peek out from behind another Panzer and fire his machine gun at my position. I fell down to the ground as the chicka-chicka-chicka of the machine gun sounded and a young chap to the right of me fell, hit several times in the chest by the machine gunner.
I screamed for a medic as the German gunner stopped to reload and the four of us remaining stood up and chucked grenades behind the tank where the machine gunner was reloading.
Two of the thrown grenades landed behind the tank and exploded, killing the machine gunner. The other two, though, landed short and landed on the tanks treads, blowing up shortly after and disabling the tank.
We hurdled the last two sandbag rows and got up on the disabled tank. Edward twisted open the top hatch of the tank, the soldier next to me threw in a grenade, and Edward closed the hatch back up. With a muffled thunk, the German tank operators’ fate was sealed as the grenade exploded. The four of us hurried back to the sandbag trenches just as another German tank fired his gun at us, ripping the earth out from where we were just standing.
When I got back to the trenches, I bent down to where a medic was tending to the man who had been shot by the machine gunner.
“Is it bad?” the young man said. He probably wasn’t even nineteen.
“No, not at all.” I lied.
“Good. Well, just in case, here’s a letter I need to send to my mother.” He reached inside his breast pocket and pulled out a letter. “The address is already on it so,” he paused as he coughed up some blood, “you won’t have to worry about that.”
“Okay, I’ll make sure it gets to her.” I said softly.
He smiled at me and I saw the light fade from his blue eyes as he died.
The medic closed the boy’s eyes and I got up, a little shaken, and snapped myself out of the shock I was in and started to fire back at another advancing German column.
We continued firing at the incoming German troops for the next couple hours until some relief soldiers came to well, relieve us.
Edward and I slunk back to our tent and tried too go to sleep. That’s where I am now, still not asleep. I can’t stop thinking about that dead kid.
It’s funny, but after I wrote that last entry, about five minutes later, I was asleep, and I mean passed out! I slept hard last night, even though I had some bad dreams about that dead kid. He was laying on the battlefield with the letter in his hand, and he was saying how it needed to get to his mother. All of a sudden his face morphed into the German machine gunner I helped kill yesterday’s face and he started screaming at me in German, scaring the living daylights out of me, and I ended up waking up in a cold sweat.
Anyway, on to a happier subject. Rommel’s pulled back now and setting up defensive positions, so we might have an actual chance of winning this battlle!
The Germans are laying mines down in front of the town, but other than that it’s really quiet. Our commander, Claude Auchinleck, ordered us to gear up for an assault tomorrow on the German defenses. I was looking back on some of my earlier entries and I noticed how it seemed that I made myself seem like it was easy for me to kill those Germans. Believe me, it wasn’t. But through the many battles I’ve been in, I’ve realized it’s kill or be killed, and that’s the way I look at it when I shoot at someone.
Otherwise, there’s really no other good way to justify it.
We headed out before dawn to spring an attack on the Germans. We had to navigate our way across the minefield the Germans had set up first, though.
The desert is a really bad place to try to hide mines because they have to be set high enough underneath the sand to be triggered. Since they were so high in the sand and the desert wind had got blowing that morning, there was a tell-tale lump in the sand wherever a mine was, so the minefield was relatively easy to navigate.
I, along with the rest of the Eighth, got across the minefield unscathed, and we waited for the whistle to be blown to signal that the attack was to commence.
The high shrill of the whistle sounded about five minutes later. I started getting my adrenaline rush when every soldier in the British Eighth Army screamed a battle cry as we rushed towards the German defenses.
We reached about a five-foot high dirt redoubt at the edge of the encampment and started firing at the scrambling German soldiers from behind there, who were definitely caught off guard.
We met stiff resistance after the Germans regrouped and began firing back at us. The firepower of the Germans soon became unbearable, so someone radioed for an airstrike.
The P-40 Warhawks came screaming in about five minutes later and I watched in awe as they dropped their payload about 100 meters from our positions. Despite the distance between us and the exploded bombs, the concussion from them knocked me from the crouching position I was in behind the redoubt to my butt.
The bombs seemed to soften the Germans up a little bit, so we launched ourselves over the redoubt and into the German camp, running into a trench about 20 meters from the edge of the redoubt.
I was ordered to the right flank where we planned to sweep around and half-encircle the German camp. The commanding officer paired me up with a young looking chap manning a Vickers 303 machine gun.
We were assigned to a 10 foot stretch of trench that the two of us were to hold at all costs. We set up there and started firing at the German soldiers, who were holed up in their own trenches about 50 yards away.
The young machine gunner I was teamed up with (I learned his name was George Staley) held our stretch of trench for about two hours before we both had to get more ammo, so we called in some men from the reserves to fight in our place until we got back.
We crawled inside the trench until we got to the redoubt and stopped. I peeked my head over the top of the trench and sprung up and over the redoubt, going as fast as I could in order to prevent myself from being shot. I got over safely and called for George to come over.
George got up but was slow as he jumped up and over the redoubt, and he was hit in the calf by a bullet. Spewing a thousand curses out of his mouth, I had to pull him over the rest of the way to prevent him from being shot again.
They had set up a command post behind the redoubt safely away from German fire with a medic station nearby, so I carried George over to the medic.
“Doc, I’m telling you, I’m fine!” George yelped as the medic probed his wound with a needle.
“No, you’re not, that bullet went in and then out of your calf, you could get discharged for that serious of a wound!” the medic replied
“No, no, no. My fellow country men are out there, and they need me!”
I bade George goodbye and left him to squabble with the medic. I went to the supply depot situated nearby and started to head back to the battlefield.
I went in front of the command post as I was heading back and it was from there I heard a voice say, “Hey, boy, get over here!”
I rushed over there and I saw the Commander of the British Eighth Army, Claude Auchinleck.
“Sir!” I said as I snapped a salute.
“At ease boy.” Auchinleck said as I lowered my salute. “How’s the battle going?”
“Good, sir. The Germans are putting up a good fight, but we should be able to push through soon sir!”
“Great, great. Any supplies you boys need?”
“Ammo and maybe some water sir.”
“Any extra firepower?” he said, rubbing his hands together.
“The left and right flanks could use a little softening up, sir.” I could tell he was getting tired of all my sirs.
“You know how to work a communications radio?”
“Shouldn’t be to hard to learn, sir.” I was a little surprised that he just called up a random guy to work the radio.
“You’re right. Think you could call in some artillery strikes where you need them? Our main radio guy got shot up.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll do my best sir. How do I call them in?”
“Just yell the coordinates into the reciever, the artillery guys should hear you, and that’s it for whatever you want gone.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you sir!”
“What’s your name, private?”
“Peter Lark, sir!”
“Peter Lark, that’s a funny name. Anyway, Private Lark, if there’s anything you need, just call me up, and it’s yours. This is a huge favor you’re doing for me and His Majesty’s soldiers.”
“No problem, sir.”
“Carry on soldier.” He dismissed me and I went to the supply room to receive my kit. I got the huge radio, in which all the supplies needed fit into one huge backpack, and headed to the redoubt.
Not wanting to go over the redoubt with the huge piece of kit on my back, I threw the radio kit over the redoubt and again scrambled to the trench after grabbing the radio.
I reported to the commanding officer in charge of the right flank and asked him if he needed any artillery assistance.
“‘Bout time! This whole right flank is eatin’ us up! Douse the whole side, that should do it!”
I pulled the phone off the top of the radio kit and using the maps I was given and some lingo I had heard other radio men use I called in, “This is radio Victor-Zulu, we need some heavy rain on sector Delta, quadrants Alpha through Beta.”
In plain English, I wanted the artillery to wipe out the whole German right flank.
I received the reply, “Viper-Zulu, orders confirmed, heavy rain inbound.” Or, the artillery is firing now.
About fifteen seconds later the German positions in front of me erupted in a ball of flame as the heavy rain descended on the Germans.
My comrades cheered as the smoke cleared and they saw the destruction the artillery had wrought on the German positions.
It was like God had reached down from heaven and swiped that part of the Earth away, leaving nothing but a black, cratered mess.
The men jumped over the trench wall and sprinted to the craters and used them as makeshift trenches because they were so deep, and they continued their assault on the German core.
I ran over to the left flank and again received orders to lay some rain on the left German flank.
I called in, “This is radio Victor-Zulu again, heavy rain needed on sector Kilo, quadrants Mike through Romeo.”
“Victor-Zulu, coordinates received. Rain is coming, grab you ponchos!”
“Thanks.” I said to the artillery and hung up. “Heads up! Rain’s coming, grab your ponchos, we’re in for a hurricane!” I yelled to the men, telling them to take cover.
15 seconds later, the Earth flopped over again as the artillery shells hit the German positions. My fellow soldiers again jumped into the craters and began firing at the German’s.
I was ordered back to the command post by a field messenger and I made my way back to the redoubt and jumped over it.
I left my radio kit at the foot of the redoubt to not hinder my advance to the command post.
Commander Auchinleck met me at the door and after sighing said, “Son, you’ve done an awesome job out there. We’ve decided to move you back to behind the redoubt to protect you from the Germans while you call in more artillery strikes. I knew you looked like you’d be a good radio man when I saw you, and I was right.”
“Thank you, sir” I replied as he handed me a periscope and I ran back to the redoubt.
For the next couple of hours I called in artillery strikes, using the periscope to peek over the top of the redoubt to see what needed firing at, but despite my best efforts, the Germans were able to push us back to behind the redoubt where we started. I was ordered back to El Alamein just as the first guys started going behind the redoubt again, at about 2000 hours.
After receiving more thanks from Commander Auchinleck, I returned to my tent and started writing this entry. Now I’m trying to go to sleep, to no avail.
Still exhausted from the battle a few days ago. I learned yesterday that Edward, my tent mate, was wounded in the battle two days ago, from a shot in the thigh as he was making his way over the redoubt.
Since he was injured and won’t be coming back from the med station for a long time, I requested that Charlie, the machine gunner I was fighting with, come tent with me. We had become pretty close when we defended the trench together.
My request was quickly approved as soon as Auchinleck heard about it, and Charlie (who had persuaded the medical crew to release him early) came with his pack and gun and set up in my tent quickly.
As we moved Edward’s stuff out of the way, I noticed a cricket set in a package sent to Edward a few days back. Might have to get that out soon.
By the way, I ended up putting that letter that kid who was killed in action on the 2nd wanted into the mail to his mother today. Auchinleck also found out about that, so he classified that letter as priority mail, so it’s gonna get to that kid’s mother one way or another as quickly as it can.
That made me feel really good.
Germans attacked our positions today. Auchinleck thought I was such a good radio man the other day that he listed me as a radio operator instead of an infantryman and I was ordered to get up in the steeple of the town mosque and report German positions to command so they could plan their attack easier.
Talk about boring. Instead of getting an adrenaline rush defending myself against the Germans, I had to call out positions of the German army all day.
We ended up holding our ground all day and finally chased the Germans off at about 1800 hours.
This is the first battle I’ve been a part of that I’ve actually not been tired after. It sucks.
Bored. Tired. Hungry. Thirsty. Tired of Africa. Want to go home. That’s the story of my time in Africa.
I scouted out another assault by the Germans at the south side of El Alamein today. We beat them off, but we lost a lot of men. Another boring day not fighting Germans.
We pulled out Edward’s cricket set today. We had a tournament of eight teams gathered from an assortment of guys from the Eighth, and my team ended up coming in third place, so we did good. The tournament took all day because we had only one cricket set, but we had fun all the same. It was definitely a good break from the boring camp life.
Speaking of battles, some New Zealanders were sent out to assault what we call “Kidney Ridge” on the 15th and they did really well, capturing some 2,600 Axis prisoners and 115 guns. This battle is starting to look up!
Command sent some Aussies to attack the Germans, but they failed miserably. We were ordered to go on the defense, and it looks like this battle is going to be a stalemate.
They gave us our fighting chance, and we took it.